Are you likely to fall for a made-up government conspiracy? That depends: how well-informed are you? If you said “very”…bad news, you might be another chump.
A recent study by Joseph Vitriol and Jessecae K. Marsh of Lehigh Unversity found that people who are overconfident in their grasp of the political world are the most likely to also buy into the existence of shadowy organizations and secret connections.
Vitriol and Marsh had the study participants rate their understanding of a series of public policies. But here’s the kicker: the subjects then had to provide the most detailed possible explanation of how those policies actually worked. They then had the option to re-evaluate themselves.
Many of the participants, bluff called, had to concede—perhaps a bit sheepishly—that they didn’t know as much as they’d thought. However, for some, the act of piecing together an explanation only strengthened their belief that they really got the whole picture.
“Participants who had high levels of confidence in their understanding of public policies after generating an explanation were more likely to endorse political conspiracies, especially if they also lacked accurate knowledge of political phenomena,” Marsh explains.
In other words, we’re looking at our old friend the Dunning Kruger effect again—that cognitive bias in which people harbor mistaken confidence in their abilities. They don’t know what they don’t know.
Of course, simply believing you understand politics does not doom you to a life of tacking pictures and news articles to the wall, tied together with red string. Other elements are also at play.
Vitriol also surveyed 3,500 adults about their attitudes regarding the state of the nation. People had to agree or disagree with statements like, “In this country, there is a ‘real America’ distinct from those who don’t share the same values” and “America’s greatest values are increasingly decaying from within.”
In both cases, supporting statements implying a certain besieged feeling made a survey-taker more likely to also buy into statements like, “The media is the puppet of those in power” and “Nothing in politics or world affairs happens by accident or coincidence.” In other words, classic conspiracy fodder.
“We found that when one feels that society’s fundamental, defining values are under siege, it is a strong predictor of a general tendency toward conspiracy thinking and endorsement of both ideological and non-ideological conspiracy theories,” says Vitriol.
Perhaps the best way to fight these tendencies is to stay skeptical, taking in a variety of viewpoints on the issues and thinking critically about any wild theories that might surface—even if they square with your general worldview.
If not, it might be time to dust off that tinfoil hat…